RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Harvard University goes on trial in Boston today for alleged discrimination against Asian-Americans. The group that's suing the school is called Students for Fair Admissions, and it claims the university systematically ranks Asian-American applicants lower on personality characteristics. Harvard denies this charge. Joining us now, reporter Kirk Carapezza of Boston member station WGBH. He's been following this story closely. Kirk, thanks for being here.
KIRK CARAPEZZA, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning, Rachel.
MARTIN: So I just gave the broad brush strokes of what the suit is about, but can you get more detailed? What is the central allegation here?
CARAPEZZA: Sure. The group Students for Fair Admissions, led by conservative legal strategist Edward Blum, is claiming that Harvard caps the number of academically qualified Asian-American applicants by using these personal ratings. In court, the group will need to prove that Harvard is intentionally rejecting the applicants because they're Asian, because of their race. I spoke with attorney Lee Cheng with the Asian American Legal Foundation, which is supporting this lawsuit. Cheng is Chinese-American, and he's also a Harvard graduate.
LEE CHENG: Harvard is systematically saying that Asian candidates are not likable and don't have good personalities by orders of magnitudes less than candidates of any other ethnic group, which is really nothing but racist. It perpetuates and feeds and creates stereotypes.
MARTIN: So just to be clear, Kirk - so Harvard uses this personality rating system for all applicants. It's just that this group is alleging that Asian-American applicants are the ones who get dinged most often.
CARAPEZZA: Right, Rachel. They're - the group is claiming that Harvard is using these rankings to racially balance its classes, which is illegal. It's unconstitutional.
MARTIN: So how is Harvard waging a defense?
CARAPEZZA: Harvard says there's been no discrimination against Asian-American applicants. And it continuously points out that Asian-Americans now account for 23 percent of all admitted students, and they make up just 6 percent of the U.S. population. At a higher education event in Detroit last month, I caught up with Harvard's new president, Larry Bacow, and he defended the college's admissions process.
LARRY BACOW: Nobody wants to be judged on their numbers alone. People understand and recognize that we learn from our differences, that creating a diverse learning environment enriches the learning experience for every student on campus.
CARAPEZZA: And Bacow says what's at stake here is Harvard and higher education's ability to create that diverse environment, which he argues is central to its mission.
MARTIN: The Trump administration has come out and weighed in on this. The Department of Justice is backing the plaintiffs. Is going to make a difference?
CARAPEZZA: Right. Last month, the Justice Department filed a brief in support of the lawsuit, saying Harvard's admissions process, quote, "may be infected with racial bias." Here in Boston, Judge Allison Burroughs will preside over the trial. And she was nominated by President Obama back in 2014. And she's the same judge who blocked President Trump's executive order designed to ban refugees and immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim countries. Judge Burroughs is known for her independent streak, so I don't think she'll be swayed by the Justice Department or the Trump administration or any other political agenda.
MARTIN: I mean, this is about Harvard, but could this case have an impact on admissions policies at other schools?
CARAPEZZA: Civil rights leaders certainly worry about that. They see this lawsuit as a direct attack on race-conscious admissions, which for the past 40 years the Supreme Court has allowed if carefully done. Students for Fair Admissions has explicitly said their goal is to overturn that precedent. And they want selective schools like Harvard to stop considering race altogether.
MARTIN: Reporter Kirk Carapezza from WGBH in Boston, thanks so much.
CARAPEZZA: Thanks, Rachel.
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